Before you starred on Elementary, were you already a fan of the Sherlock Holmes series?
I knew about Sherlock Holmes, but I never really studied it or learnt about it because I didn’t grow up reading the stories. I came from a Chinese family (laughs), so it wasn’t the top of our list. But once I started doing the show, I started reading the short stories and I really fell in love with it, so that’s how it basically began. It wasn’t something that I initially knew about, aside from just hearing about it like ‘You’re no Sherlock Holmes’ or ‘Oh, aren’t you a Sherlock Holmes?’ It was sort of like when people referred to Sherlock Holmes as someone who would solve mysteries.
What do you find interesting about your role as Joan Watson in Elementary?
I love the relationship that she has with Sherlock. I think that Watson and Sherlock have wonderful dynamics that’re shown very deeply in the novels and the short stories basically really showed the connection between the two of them. They’ve had many interesting cases and it’s fascinating how they’re solved. But really, their relationship is what counts as a core foundation in the show and that is something we develop over time. Because she started as a sober companion, there was more of an emotional connection before they became detectives together. I think that’s what drew me into the show the most.
What is your approach when changing Watson’s character into a female?
I didn’t have to do very much. To me, it’s all inherent in the writing and Rob Doherty, the creator, was really magical at how he created this character, even though the character was a male in the actual novels and short stories. He just transcribed them very flawlessly and without the bumps and bruises. His idea originally was that, Sherlock was uncomfortable with women in general, and he thought it’d be interesting if he had a partner who’s a woman that he has to be around all the time. The idea of wearing an uncomfortable sweater all the time that was a little bit itchy but you have to have it on. That was sort of the idea of how Watson as a woman was very important, but not altogether something he would necessarily want to put on on a regular basis.
After a few seasons of being Sherlock Holmes’ partner, how has the relationship between the two characters developed so far?
So far the characters have developed in a very good way. We started out as sober companions, and as we progressed, Watson became his partner and then a detective. I think now they’re still partners but their friendship has deepened quite a bit. I think now that we’re introducing Sherlock’s father in the fourth season, you really get to see the dynamics between Sherlock and his father, and also how Joan steps in and acts as someone who really cares for and protects him in a very different manner. It’s more of an emotional relationship more than a work relationship, which is how it transformed from season 1 to season 4.
As an actress playing a character usually known as a man, what have you brought to the role in the past three seasons? Do you think that the dynamics between the two characters would’ve been different if Dr. Watson was a man?
When men form relationships with one another, they just have this brotherhood, this camaraderie there, and I think we’ve developed that. Rob has done a really wonderful job in writing that into the story. John Watson used to have many relationships with women, and I think that dynamic is clearly not sexual between them so I think that also allows for people to see that there’s more to their relationship in the future than getting together, which a lot of people have asked me about.
Why do you think there is a revisit in classic stories like Sherlock Holmes in TV shows recently?
I think when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the story and wrote about the character, he was so colourful and dynamic. There were many different facets about Sherlock Holmes and Watson that were interesting. You generate so many interesting ideas that you can never run out of them. I think for each writer, whether in movies or television or another media, it’s an endless amount of material that you can draw from. In this case, he took something from a story where he’s does a lot of opium, he’s on drugs a lot, and took that and really made that into a story for this particular Sherlock. There’re so many incarnations of it because the material was written originally in the 1800s. It kind of made it part of something so historic, something embedded in literature. Take the character of Watson that everybody knows about. Now I can bring that character to modern day, make her a woman, and somebody who is also Asian. It’s a really wonderful experience.
In the past three years being on the show, what has surprised the team most about how the show has developed and how fans have responded to it?
For me, I feel like what’s been so amazing is the cast and characters that we continue to bring in. So many wonderful guest stars that you never would’ve imagined. I have so many people that I admire that come onto the show. People whom you think would never come on the show, and they’re really big fans of the show. I remember bumping into Steve Martin, and he said that he and his wife watch every episode. I was so surprised. I was going to tell him what a big fan I was of his and how much I admire him. Instead, he told me how much he loved the show and I was flabbergasted. I love that this show is really, for me, the longest running show that I’ve done where I’m one of the leads in it. You really develop a strong relationship with the people you work with. You become this family. You really grow from that, and I feel that I’ve really grown from this particular family. I feel intense amounts of gratitude.
You’ve directed Elementary for the second time. What lessons have you learnt about directing and how has it changed your approach on acting?
Directing is a whole different ball game, and it sort of takes what you do and extend it ten-fold or hundred-fold. You’re behind the scenes, you really see how everything works, all the mechanisms. It’s funny because when you watch film and television as an audience member, it’s magical. But to be honest with you, being behind the scenes is even more magical because you have a script and you have all of these elves behind the scenes creating all of it. This fantasy can connect and communicate beyond the same pages. It isn’t always easy but it’s done in such a beautiful manner that it’s art. I feel like when I’m interacting, I’m a part of a giant painting where everyone is a different colour and you mash them together and you connect them to create a beautiful work. That’s something that I love. I love being really intimate with the crew, really getting to know them and creating something together. You might be directing, but you’re directing a group of really talented, creative people. I found that my life has changed significantly from directing because it helps me see things in a very different way.
Watson tends to solve cases independently every now and then without Holmes. Would we still have more of that? How do you feel about those episodes where she just goes and solves the cases on her own?
We have a lot of storylines where Watson has her own mysteries that she solves and we’ll always continue to have that. Sometimes we try to do different things. I know that for a while, she has her own cases and agency. Now that they’re connected, they still have things that they do together, but they also do a lot of things separately. I think you’ll see that in the next season as well.
What are the challenges that you’ve encountered playing this role?
For me, I think that Watson is a very patient, open and aware person. I think sometimes the process on film can be slower than I like because I was so used to doing action, or something that is very fast, running around, and she’s not that way as much. Sometimes I still have to be very comfortable just being in that space and not rushing it. I like that about her. She’s taught me a great deal about how to be patient and let things come to you instead of being so active all the time.
Who are your favourite fictional characters that you would like to see on television or on film?
There’re so many I grew up watching on television – Charlie Brown, Get Smart. Everything is sort of a reincarnation of that. A lot of material from the original is now being redone. Shows like Star Trek or Star Wars are being regenerated. I think there’re some really beautiful untapped things we can find in other cultures, like in Asia, in China, in Japan. There’re so many beautiful stories that we could enhance, something that is not known in America. I really do think that sometimes before the book is even out, it’s already bought and people are already curating them. It’s hard to keep up. You really have to be fast. You have to have a really fast hand on your trigger nowadays, especially on the internet. As soon as something is out, it’s already bought or it’s already gone. It’s a different way of living now. It’s hard to keep up with absolutely everything. You always feel like you’re a little bit behind but I guess that’s something that I don’t mind because I’m also very curious about everything so I will feel like there is something to explore.
How was it working with John Noble this season?
John Noble is just an absolute gentleman. He is so sweet and so kind, and the complete opposite of all of the characters he plays that are really twisted and dark. He is just a lovely man. He loves his children and his grandchildren and he is a very family-oriented person. I have had the honour of working with him on a few scenes featuring just the two of us and I just adore him. He is such a huge asset to the show and I hope he can stay on longer.
Sherlock has a relapse at the end of season 3. Can we expect Dr. Watson to help him out again like in season 1? What can we look forward to in this season?
I think that for sure Watson is not going to be anything more than a friend to him. I know that he relapsed, but she’s not going to be his sober companion and you are not going to see her work with him in that capacity. Rob has made that very clear. She is going to be supporting him emotionally, be behind him, but not engaging him in that manner. I think that is going to change the dynamics of how their relationship is perceived in season 4. You’re going to see that he’s going to rely on other people for that, and they’re going to have a much more of a friendship rather than that kind of companionship regarding being sober.
What are some similarities between you and your character?
Hmm, let’s see. I think she has sense of humour, which I think is very important. I think that she is very down to earth and she also likes to eat a lot, which I like to do as well. Those are my three highlights!
Right from the start, your character has been completely off the wall compared to the traditional character. You’re a woman, you’re Asian, you’re American. Yet, somehow, the show has transcended that gender issue and it’s just about Holmes and Watson. What do you think of your portrayal, the script, and how the show has managed to transcend that gender issue, which was so jarring in the beginning?
For me, I don’t think about how to transcend something. I think the act of doing is a more powerful thing to do. I think only when you act is when you can really succeed in understanding how you move forward. In life, in gender, in race, in age, in creativity, in style, in anything that you do. People always say ‘you’re so fashion forward’, or ‘you’re so forward thinking’ and the key word is ‘forward’. I think if you push forward, that’s what’s going to happen. Not everyone is going to agree with you, or like your style, the way you think or how you run your business. But when you move forward, eventually everyone else will catch up. We live in a very culturally mixed society, and I think that entertainment has to catch up to what we’re doing. We live in a world where there’re all kinds of people, race, culture, sizes and shapes. I think that’s something we’re accustomed to, and when we go back to entertainment, we see that as a supplement of our actual life, the reality of how we live. So I try not to pay a lot of attention to it. I think if you hit it on the head too hard, it becomes an issue. I think when you live your experience, and you live by example, it becomes reality as opposed to focusing on trying to billboard it all the time. When you highlight something, you always draw attention to it. You should draw attention to the creative aspect of it, as opposed to the political aspect of something. In this particular case, the entertainment value does not have political slant to it.
You had to film with animals in an episode that you directed. There’s saying to never work with children or animals. Do you agree after having done so?
First of all, I love animals and kids. But I do think there is always the nature of complication when you work with animals or children because they’re a little more unpredictable, and there is also a timeline for children where you can only have them for a certain amount of time, and you also have to have a teacher on set. That being said, I think they’re worth the challenge because they bring such a wonderful aspect to what you’re doing. You can’t really have it any other way. That’s why when you see something like ET or when you’re watching things with animals in it, like Lassie, there is something about it that you can’t quite understand but it is quite touching. For the same reason. I think it’s worth the challenge and time constraints to work with them. I would never say never. I was also lucky enough to work with people who really knew how to be around animals. You really learn a lot from being around them. I always find that when I experience something, it makes my world bigger, and I love that. I love the idea of knowing more. It’s not that different from having your own child at home. It’s about communicating and connecting with animals and children and human beings and actors on a very basic level. For me, I love that challenge. I don’t always find it to be a challenge; I find it to be delightful. It’s nice to take a break from adults once in a while and communicate with children.
Elementary is the longest show you’ve done since Ally McBeal. When you meet fans, do they remember you as Watson now, or do they remember you as Ling? Do you still remember the dancing baby from Ally McBeal?
Of course! Who doesn’t remember the dancing baby from Ally McBeal? I think it depends on when you connect. A lot of people from Europe remember Ally McBeal, some people remember me from movies, others remember me from Cashmere Mafia. Really, it varies from what kind of fan you are. Some people love you from Kill Bill. It depends on your taste and style. Luckily, I’ve had the ability to expand from doing drama and comedy to also stunt work and action. So, if you don’t like this, maybe you like that. There has been a variety of things that I’ve been lucky enough in my career to be able to experience. It depends, sometimes you like chocolate, you don’t like vanilla. I have a little of a mix.
You’ve done Kill Bill and Charlie’s Angels. How different has it been doing drama instead of action movies?
I think when you do a television shows, it’s very different because it’s a very intense schedule. 10 months to produce 24 shows, and you have very little time to prepare. You’re working on one show, and the next week you’re starting another show. It’s a different cast and characters with different names. It’s kind of like a marathon; you really have to pace yourself. Doing television has taught me so much about how to pace myself. When you’re doing film, you film one or two pages in one day. But on television you’re shooting eight to ten pages a day. It’s a very different number and you really have to be prepared and organized. For me, I really love what I do, and it helps because it’s never a problem to take time to learn my lines and to make that happen, even if you have to negate social events and spending time with your friends and family sometimes just do you can make sure you’re prepared for the next day because you have a big crew waiting for you. It’s been a pleasure, but there’s a significant difference between those two, even between cable and network television. For cable television, they do 10-13 episodes while we do 24. It is a very big commitment.
Elementary S4 premiered Nov 11, Wednesday at 9:55pm (8:55pm JKT/BKK) on RTL CBS Entertainment HD.